Hannah Frank: The artist who finally won recognition at 100

August 22, 2008

In the 1920s, artist Hannah Frank signed her drawings Al Aaraaf, a name she took from a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. A footnote to the poem explains that Al Aaraaf was a mysterious star that suddenly appeared in the heavens, grew brighter and brighter for a few days, and then suddenly disappeared, never to be seen again. This was how Frank saw herself: as someone who would shine brightly for a short time and then disappear.

However, Frank, who celebrates her 100th birthday tomorrow, continued to shine for considerably longer than that - she painted until the 1990s, in fact. But her name would have been known just to a circle of family and friends in her native Glasgow had it not been for her niece, Fiona Frank.

Fiona has devoted the past five years to promoting her aunt's work by organising exhibitions of her drawings and sculptures in Britain and the United States. The culmination of this project is an exhibition to be held in the artist's native Glasgow, which opens tomorrow on the artist's 100th birthday. There will also be a new book about her published to coincide with the birthday celebrations, a new film about Hannah's life and work will be launched, and a reception for the artist is to be held at the Scottish Parliament. "The work I've been doing will make sure Hannah Frank's name will never disappear," Fiona declares. "She'll go on for ever!"

Frank was born in Glasgow in 1908, the daughter of recent immigrants from Russia. She was a bright child who showed an early talent for art and was encouraged by her parents in all her studies, as she recalls.

"My father was always very proud of my drawing. He had a friend, John Quinton Pringle, who was a Royal Academician. He advised my father that I should carry on with art, but also that I should get a career and that the art should be the icing on the cake, not the whole cake. So I went to university but I also went to the art school in the evenings. There were very few Jews at the art school in those days, and my mother had asked a neighbour to help to get me into the school. She said it was the hardest thing she ever had to do."

While at Glasgow University, many of Hannah's trademark black-and-white drawings in the Art Nouveau style appeared in GUM, the Glasgow University Magazine. They feature willowy figures with long flowing hair wearing richly patterned garments; most were inspired by poetry.

She explains: "I would lie in bed reciting poetry and I would draw the images that came into my head." She also loved several passages from the Bible. "I would bore my brothers every week at our Shabbat dinner by reading from Job and the Psalms. These are the ones that inspired me - but I wasn't a bit religious." She was nevertheless involved with the Glasgow Jewish community throughout her life, and produced designs for a number of Jewish organisations, including Habonim and JNF.

She continued to draw through the 1930s and 1940s, but in the 1950s she changed direction after enrolling in sculpture classes at the Glasgow School of Art. She was taught by the head of the sculpture department, Jewish sculptor Benno Schotz, who convinced her to concentrate on that art form. "Benno encouraged me in my sculpture," she explains. "I only started sculpture to help with my anatomy, for my drawing, but when I started sculpture I didn't go back to drawing at all." Her sculptures were regularly exhibited at the Royal Glasgow Institute and the Royal Scottish Academy.

However, by 2002, when she and her husband, Lionel Levy, moved into a care home, her work was little known. It was then that Fiona became involved. She had, of course, known about the work from an early age. "I grew up with my aunt's art in our house," she recalls. "My dad, Hannah's brother, was a Preston GP and had a full set of her prints in his waiting-room. We used to visit Auntie Hannah and Uncle Lionel in Glasgow, though we couldn't stay as the spare room was her studio. The house was full, full, full of sculptures and drawings - Hannah would always have an overall on and clay on her hands and it was Lionel who always had to make the tea."

So why did she embark on her campaign to promote her aunt's work? She explains: "Hannah and Lionel asked me to help distribute some of the sculpture among family and friends when they were looking for a care home to go to. I felt weird about this and took the art to the gallery at Lancaster University, where I work. They thought it absolutely beautiful and wanted to show it before it was dispersed. That was the beginning. Then, five years ago, I made the decision to go all out for five years and to try to have a big splash for Auntie Hannah's centenary - it was the least I could do for this person in my family who has such wonderful talent. But it's all been beyond my wildest dreams, the best thing of course being that Hannah is still here with us all to witness it."

So what have been the highlights of the last five years for Fiona and Hannah? Fiona explains. "To begin with, I mapped out all I wanted to achieve leading up to my aunt's 100th birthday. I dreamed of wildly unlikely things - an interview on Woman's Hour, a spread in a weekend colour supplement, a television appearance; all these things and more have actually come to pass. Yet the highlight for me was without a doubt when I met Professor Shulamit Reinharz at Limmud and she arranged for the exhibition to travel to her gallery at Brandeis University. Using various contacts and even through a cold-call email, I managed to get exhibitions in Philadelphia, Connecticut and Manhattan before the works travelled home at the beginning of this year."

Fiona's enthusiasm for her aunt's work is plain to see and she has a fervent admirer in her aunt.

"Everything that's happening is because of Fiona," Hannah returns the compliment. "If you can't have your own children, the next best thing is to have a niece."

Snapshot: Hannah Frank

Born: August 23, 1908, Glasgow

Family: Daughter of Miriam and Charles, who owned a photographic shop. Was married to Lionel

Career: Painted while at Glasgow University and as a teacher. She later attended Glasgow School of Art and took up sculpture. Her retrospective was in 1983 and travelling exhibition, Hannah Frank, A Glasgow Artist, has been running since 2002

Hannah Frank: A Glasgow Artist - 100th Birthday Exhibition is at Glasgow University Chapel until October 11 . Details on 0141 330 5419

Last updated: 3:02pm, August 28 2014